EXPLAINER: What are the Iran nuclear talks all about?

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Demonstrators of an Iranian opposition group protest near the Grand Hotel Wien where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place, in Vienna, Austria, Thursday, April 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

BERLIN – Negotiations to bring the United States back into a landmark nuclear deal with Iran resumed Thursday in Vienna amid signs of progress — but also under the shadow of an attack this week on Iran's main nuclear facility. After more than two hours of talks characterized by Russia's delegate as generally positive, issues were turned back over to two working groups for continued discussion and refinement.


In 2015, Iran signed an agreement with the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain that was intended to set limits on Tehran's nuclear program in order to block it from building a nuclear weapon — something it insists it doesn't want to do.

In exchange, Iran received relief from sanctions that those powers had imposed, including on its exports of oil and access to the global banking system. Iran was allowed to continue to pursue its nuclear program for civilian purposes, with strict limits on how much uranium it could enrich, the purity it could enrich it to and other measures.

Before the deal, conservative estimates were that Iran was within five to six months of being able to produce a bomb, while some feared it was within two to three months. With the deal safeguards in place, that “breakout time” was estimated to be more than a year.

But in 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. unilaterally out of the deal, criticizing clauses that ease restrictions on Iran in stages — and also the fact that eventually the deal would expire and Iran would be allowed to do whatever it wanted with its nuclear technology. He also said it needed to be renegotiated to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional influence such as backing militant groups.

The crippling American sanctions that followed took their toll on Iran’s economy — but failed to bring Tehran back to the table to broaden the deal as Trump wanted. Instead, Tehran steadily exceeded the limitations set by the deal to pressure the remaining members for economic relief.

In February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said of Iran's estimated breakout time that “we’re down to three or four months and heading in the wrong direction.”